Upon taking office in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte quickly implemented a campaign pledge to begin amending the 1987 Philippine Constitution. A political outsider from the southern island of Mindanao, Duterte won one of the most highly contested presidential races in Philippine history in part by promising to transform development patterns that have favored the capital Manila for centuries. One way he proposes to do this is by transforming the Philippines’s highly centralized unitary form of government headed by a president to a decentralized federal system jointly ruled by a president and prime minister.
But is this promise of regional development through constitutional change merely a stalking horse for the erosion of Philippine democracy?
In a 2016 article, the political scientist Nancy Bermeo wrote about executive aggrandizement, a process by which elected executives “weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” This weakening of independent institutions is undertaken legally, often using “newly elected constitutional assemblies or referenda.” In this, Duterte follows in the footsteps of leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – all elected leaders who rendered democratic institutions increasingly impotent as they continued to rule.
Since taking office, Duterte and his allies have moved to expand their power through both legal and extra-legal means. His controversial “war on drugs” has involved thousands of extrajudicial killings and been constitutionally challenged in court. Shortly after the city of Marawi was besieged by ISIS-affiliated rebels, he declared a constitutional state of Martial Law over Mindanao and hinted at extending it to the rest of the country. He then expressed frustration with Martial Law’s “many restrictions,” threatening to assume emergency powers and declare what he called a “revolutionary government.” While this did not come to pass, the specter of renewed authoritarian rule looms large. But it appears more likely that if Duterte succeeds in undermining Philippine democracy, it will be through constitutional change rather than through an unpopular executive coup.
A Brief History of Constitutional Change in the Philippines
Attempts at changing the current 1987 Constitution are not new; three out of the four presidents since Corazon Aquino have attempted to do so. All these efforts failed, running into legal obstacles as well as broad opposition from other political elites and civil society. Opponents decried these attempts as the beginning of a slippery slope toward indefinite rule, evoking Ferdinand Marcos’s 1972 martial law declaration that allowed him to circumvent the 1935 constitution’s two-term limit.
In Duterte’s case, fears of executive aggrandizement and a return to authoritarian rule seem just as, if not more likely, for two reasons.
The first is an apparent lack of transparency and accountability from reform proponents. Duterte himself has always been considerably vague about the contents of what he calls “federalism,” despite campaigning for it for years. No definite proposal came up for public debate until more than 18 months after he took office.
To pass the amendments, the administration and its allies plan to convene a Constituent Assembly which combines the House of Representatives and the Senate, rather than a Constitutional Convention composed of new delegates elected from among the people at large. While critics argue that any new Constitution should be drafted by a body with its own mandate, key administration officials have doubled down on the Assembly, describing a Convention as “expensive” and voters as “illiterate” and needing “education” on constitutional change.
Many of these key figures have also showed an unwillingness to brook dissent. Recently, the House Speaker threatened to cut earmarked budgets for lawmakers opposing amendments.
Second is the lack of attention to ensuring the existence of strong checks and balances in the proposed system, which have rightly troubled critics as “self-serving.” Several amendments in the two most prominent proposals seem to be aimed at undermining civil liberties, neutralizing the power of independent institutions, and removing spaces for the opposition. For example, the relatively independent Senate has chafed at the proposal of a single legislature modeled on the House of Representatives, whose members have historically been more likely to be coopted by the executive. That same proposal also eliminates watchdogs such as the Ombudsman, an independent prosecutor for offenses committed by government officials.
Moreover, convening a Constituent Assembly would also ensure that amendments are only proposed by the same elites with interests in blocking democratic reform. It is highly unlikely, for example, that the 1987 Constitution’s toothless prohibition against political dynasties would be given any real force by a Congress where 70 percent of members are scions of these dynasties.
Options for Democrats
Done correctly, constitutional change has the potential to not only promote the regional development Duterte was elected to bring, but also strengthen the country’s position in the global economy and enhance Philippine democracy. Certain reforms – including changes to the electoral system, legislative representation, and limits on foreign ownership of business – should be considered.
But while fears of democratic erosion are legitimate, the political opposition must not make the mistake of opposing all constitutional change on principle. Duterte’s substantial popularity and continuing visible deficiencies in Philippine institutions make such a position untenable. Instead, the opposition should be proactive, willing to identify constitutional provisions that should be retained and jettison those that are obsolete. It must recognize that the people, having voted in large numbers for change, will eventually come to expect it. Failure to do so puts the people’s welfare – and Philippine democracy’s – at great risk.
(Image: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivering a speech to Filipino expatriates in Vietnam on September 28, 2016. From the Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office via Wikimedia Commons.)